Turkey Locks Horns With Kurds Again

By Doug Saunders,The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 7 June 2010

You can tell that war has returned to Turkey, at the worst possible moment, by the moving plans of Hamdiye Aydin, a 49-year-old Kurdish peasant who has been chased across the barren hills of the southeast by the Turkish army, held in camps by guerrillas, liberated by the government, and this week finds herself jeopardized by all three.

By Doug Saunders,The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 7 June 2010

You can tell that war has returned to Turkey, at the worst possible moment, by the moving plans of Hamdiye Aydin, a 49-year-old Kurdish peasant who has been chased across the barren hills of the southeast by the Turkish army, held in camps by guerrillas, liberated by the government, and this week finds herself jeopardized by all three.

“I thought we’d finally found a resting place this year, but now it’s starting again,” she said the other day as she washed buckets of sheep’s wool to make mattresses in a painstaking effort to return life to the ruins of her burned-out village. Armoured vehicles raced by on the road below her and fighter jets circled over head in clear signs that the Turkish-Kurdish war, all but resolved a month ago, has returned in earnest.

It has been peaceful here for almost a year, since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan negotiated an astonishing truce known as the “Kurdish opening,” persuading both the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK militia to end a war that has killed as many as 45,000 people since 1984.

For his government, the return to conflict could not have come at a worse time.

On his country’s western flank, Mr. Erdogan is facing an angry showdown with former ally Israel over its military attack on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza; two days before that attack began, PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan announced from prison that his PKK militia would return to armed struggle here in the southeast, breaking the carefully brokered peace.

For Ms. Aydin, the handful of neighbours who have joined her in reoccupying the burned-out ruins of the village, and for hundreds of thousands of Kurdish farmers like her, it means that a permanent-seeming peace was merely an interlude. It has been seven years since the Turkish army burst into this tiny hillside village on the silk road, gave its 70 residents 24 hours to leave or be shot, and then burned and destroyed all its buildings and fields.

In a ruthless counterinsurgency strategy meant to end terrorist attacks by the Kurdish-separatist PKK guerrillas and to ethnically “Turkify” the region, the army drove at least a million Kurds out of their homes. Ruined Kurdish villagers choked the region’s cities and fled to other cities and countries.

This week, only months after some of the villagers were reunited with the ruins of their homes in a large-scale peace and reconciliation effort, the killings, reprisals and terror campaigns began again. On Monday, three Kurdish rebels were killed in heavy fighting north of the Iraqi border, less than a week after six Turkish soldiers died in a bold PKK rocket attack on a naval base in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun.

For the Kurdish minority, who make up one-sixth of Turkey’s population, it is a frustrating moment: After this region became a blasted wasteland in the 1990s, the “Kurdish opening” had brought financial growth and entrepreneurship to the city of Diyarbakir and had seen Kurds beginning to return to the villages.

The opening had involved a full recognition of the Kurdish language, including the launch of a Kurdish public TV network and Kurdish-language secondary and university classes – acts that would have been unthinkable until recently, as the language was illegal and officially non-existent under a Turkish constitution that recognizes only one language and ethnic group.

But PKK fighters, in interviews in the refugee-choked Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, said that they have resumed armed conflict because there were no signs that Mr. Erdogan has any intention of meeting their basic goal of recognizing the Kurdish language and culture in Turkey’s constitution. They now believe that Mr. Erdogan’s governing party, the AKP (Peace and Justice) party, is not sincerely interested in reaching a peace.

Mr. Erdogan last year offered a partial amnesty to PKK fighters who were willing to come down from the hills along the Iraqi border, identify themselves, and renounce terrorism. But the government did not consider their statements contrite, so they face criminal charges with sentences of up to 100 years.

“We really did believe in the Kurdish opening, we thought the AKP would understand that all we are seeking is an amnesty and official recognition of language rights, but over and over we found that there was nobody to talk to, and nobody interested in talks,” said Elif Uludag, 52, a fighter who re-entered Turkey in October and who now faces terrorism charges. Her two sons remain fighting “in the hills,” she says.

“We surrendered and then we were arrested. They said they would recognize our language but there is no talk of the constitution. We have to go back to defending ourselves because it seems that there was no peace at all, just some gestures to create a political perception.”

Mr. Erdogan, in an effort to put the peace process back on track, on Sunday invited Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region and an influential figure in Kurdish politics, to Ankara to speak with both sides. Mr. Barzani urged the PKK to lay down arms and return to talks. “We believe that the Turkish government’s decision is the right one,” he said of the Kurdish opening.

While the PKK, at the height of its powers in the 1990s, was a separatist group seeking an independent “greater Kurdistan” encompassing the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, officials from the PKK and the leading Kurdish political parties said in interviews that their only goal today is to have constitutional recognition of language and cultural rights – they even consider a Scottish or Catalan-style solution of a regional assembly an unrealistic goal.

“This is really a very simple thing we are seeking something that other countries like Canada have always had – and I can tell you that the PKK is united in this and this is all they are seeking now – and the fact that Erdogan will not even speak of it, that he will not even recognize it, tells us that there is no point trying to talk any more,” said Sayim Abay of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which some consider the political branch of the PKK.

Turkish officials in Ankara said privately that while the AKP government wants to see Kurdish language rights enshrined in the constitution, to do so would enrage the country’s constitutional court, which is controlled by determined secularists who are opposed to any changes to the state envisaged by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, in the 1920s, and which has tried to outlaw Mr. Erdogan’s party, which has Islamic roots.

Mr. Erdogan is seeking a constitutional change that would expand the judiciary, making it more accepting of the constitutional changes. Opposition parties fear that this could create an opening for breaking down the strict boundaries between religion and state.

Until the late 2000s, the army had been staunch defenders of the constitution, and its scorched-earth approach to ousting the PKK had been at odds with Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to negotiate a peace and willingness to accept a multi-ethnic state.

But the failure of the aggressive military approach, and the success of Mr. Erdogan’s party in successive elections – especially among Kurds in the southeast, who switched their allegiances to the AKP – made the military willing to accept the Kurdish opening, at least until now. It now appears that the military and the PKK could enter a period of escalating attacks and reprisals, as they did in the worst days of the 1990s.

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